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Ralph Denton could trace his liberal Democratic Party roots back more than 100 years to populist politician William Jennings Bryan, who in his time was the standard bearer of American liberalism.
For inspiration, Denton would look in the dining room of his Boulder City home at a commemorative plate autographed by three-time U.S. presidential candidate Bryan, a close friend of Ralph’s grandfather, both of whom were Nebraska residents in the 1890s.
Given his family’s long history in liberal politics, it was little wonder that, with such a pedigree, Denton became a major force in the local Democratic Party, earning the reputation of being “the liberal conscience of Nevada.”
Ralph Lloyd Denton, a Las Vegas attorney for the last half of the 20th century and an outspoken advocate for civil rights, died late Friday of cancer at his home. He was 86.
Services for the lifelong Nevadan — a member of one of the state’s pioneering families — will be 10 a.m. Friday at Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas, 302 Cathedral Way.
The family said donations can be made to the Ralph Denton Professorship at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.
“Ralph first developed his love of politics working for Pat McCarran in Washington – and no one was more interested in government than Ralph Denton,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Saturday upon learning that his longtime friend and supporter had died.
“He was one of my biggest fans and I was one of his biggest fans. The whole Denton family, starting with his wife Sara, have my sympathies for the loss of this great Nevadan,” Reid said.
“Ralph was the classic concerned citizen,” said Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. “He got involved in issues that mattered to him and to the rest of us. He didn’t do it to be elected to some office or to get rich from it. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
“Ralph always said, ‘There are two kinds of people — those who want to do something and those who want to be somebody. I never wanted to be somebody.’
The irony is that he became somebody — somebody significant.”
“When I last visited with my friend, we laughed a good bit as we remembered the really good stories about some of the really bad people who have come and gone from Las Vegas,” said Sun Publisher Brian Greenspun. “Ralph Denton was different. He was one of the really good ones.”
Denton was the great-nephew of 19th century Nevada legislator James Denton and the father of longtime Nevada District Court Judge Mark Denton. Ralph was a protégé of powerful U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada and an admirer of President John Kennedy, whom Denton helped get elected in 1960.
Denton also was a key figure in the struggle to end segregation at Las Vegas Strip resorts in the 1950s . At the time, the Jim Crow-type policy had earned Southern Nevada the dubious nickname of “The Mississippi of the West.”
During that period, Denton was one of the few Southern Nevada attorneys who took cases for the American Civil Liberties Union.
He worked closely with local West Las Vegas leaders including Dr. Charles West, Dr. James McMillan and Dr. William “Bob” Bailey to improve conditions and opportunities for minorities. Denton hired the first black legal secretary in Las Vegas.
Denton’s life is chronicled in his 2001 book “A Liberal Conscience: Ralph Denton, Nevadan,” based on interviews he did with Green for the University of Nevada Oral History Program.
The book is described in one online catalog as a “witty, highly informative memoir of one of the most revered figures in Nevada’s Democratic Party.”
Ralph Denton was born in Caliente on Sept. 8, 1925, the last of four
children of miner/saloonkeeper/undersheriff Babe Denton and school teacher/Nevada assemblywoman/newspaper columnist Hazel Baker Denton.
As a boy, Ralph shined shoes in a barber shop frequented by sharply dressed politicians and was a projectionist in a movie theater owned by his uncle
Lloyd. As a teenager, he punched cattle as a ranch hand and lettered in football and basketball at Lincoln County High School.
During a summer break, Denton got a job as an elevator operator in the U.S.
Senate under the patronage of Sen. Berkeley Bunker.
After graduating from high school in 1943, Denton enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He served in World War II as a field artillery instructor. While in the service, Denton met his future wife, Sara Pittard, a civilian secretary from Paducah, Ky.
Denton resigned his commission in 1948 to pursue a law degree and married Pittard on July 29, 1949.
He attended Washington College of Law at American University on the GI Bill, graduating in 1951 with a juris doctorate degree.
During his college years, Denton again worked as a Senate elevator operator and in the Senate post office under the patronage of Rep. Charles Russell and Sens. George “Molly” Malone and Pat McCarran.
Denton was part of a group of more than 50 young men called the “McCarran Boys” who were sponsored by McCarran while attending college. Others included future Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer and future U.S. Sen. Alan Bible.
After graduating from law school, Denton returned to Nevada, where McCarran got him a job as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Roger T. Foley.
McCarran, for whom Las Vegas’ airport is named, died in 1954, but by then Denton was well on his way to carving out a stellar career. Denton moved to Elko and was deputy district attorney under then-DA Sawyer. In 1955, the Dentons relocated to Las Vegas, where he started a law practice.
In 1958, Denton played a key role in Sawyer’s first gubernatorial campaign, running Sawyer’s primary and general election bids in Southern Nevada. He also was active in Sawyer’s subsequent campaigns.
Also in 1958, Denton won election as district attorney of Esmeralda County.
Two years later, Denton chaired Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Nevada.
In 1963, Gov. Sawyer appointed Denton to the Clark County Commission, where he served for two years but failed to win election to the seat.
In 1968, Denton chaired the Nevada committee to elect as president Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who strongly opposed the Vietnam War.
Denton announced in 1974 that he would seek the Democratic nomination for governor amid much speculation that Democratic incumbent Mike O’Callaghan would make a bid for the U.S. Senate. Denton withdrew from the race when O’Callaghan opted to run for a second term as governor.
All the while, Denton practiced law. Although he represented the common man in numerous cases, Denton also had high-profile clients including Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun, entertainer Louis Prima and resort builders Milton Prell and Bob Stupak — all now deceased.
Brian Greenspun remembered Denton for his values.
“In the early days, it was hard for Ralph, being one of ‘McCarran’s Boys,’ to be seen as Hank Greenspun’s friend and lawyer, but Ralph did it proudly and capably because he believed in doing what was right,” he said. “Above all else, Ralph was about doing the right thing, especially for people who needed that extra bit of help.”
On several occasions, Denton served as Boulder City’s interim city attorney, where he penned the city’s limited growth ordinance.
In July 2008, Denton announced his “semi-retirement” after nearly six decades of practicing law. He moved his office from Las Vegas to the second story of the historic Boulder Dam Hotel to give advice to Boulder City residents.
“For Ralph, Nevada always came first, partisan politics aside,” said noted Nevada gaming attorney Bob Faiss, a friend of 54 years. “He said whether you are a Democrat or Republican, we all agree on the same thing — Nevada is a good place to be and could be an even better place.”
“Ralph had a strong moral character,” said Faiss, a former Nevada Gaming Commission assistant executive secretary who also was the Sun’s city editor in the late 1950s. “He felt that everyone has an obligation to make the world a better place.”
“I have known Ralph most of my life” Greenspun said. “He has been my boss, my mentor and my colleague. Most importantly, he has been my friend. Before that, however, he was my parents’ friend and they could not have had a better one.
“Our hearts go out to Sara and the entire family. Las Vegas could use some more Ralph Dentons.”
In addition to his wife in Boulder City and son in Las Vegas, Denton is survived by a daughter, author Sally Denton; a daughter-in-law Alice; another son, Dr. Scott Denton and his wife Ruth, all of Las Vegas; and 10 grandchildren.
Ralph was preceded in death by two sisters, Henrietta and Betty; a brother, Lewis; and a son, Jeffrey.
Koch is a retired Sun reporter.